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2021: The Year of Liminality

COMM388 Final Project
December 17, 2021

   Masks inside, no masks outside. Online school for the spring semester, in-person school for the fall semester. Loosening of guidelines, tightening of guidelines. Almost normal, but never completely.
   2021. In many regards, this year can be considered the ultimate state of liminality that our country has experienced in tandem.
   This photo essay will dive into five events that have taken place throughout this year and analyze them through a ritualistic lens. All of the events embody liminality in various ways and involve a number of sacred practices and artifacts. While these rituals produce a number of effects, one common thread links them all: providing a sense of certainty in times of uncertainty.

New Year's Eve

   Dating back to 1907, people from around the world have gathered in Times Square to watch the New Year’s Eve Ball drop at midnight. The event has grown to draw around 100,000 attendees each year, with many more watching from home; without a doubt, the ritual has been embraced by the American public. New Year’s Eve is a textbook example of Victor Turner’s idea of the liminal period, which he explores in Betwixt and Between. The celebration is suspended between two, literally different times: the end of the current calendar year and the beginning of the next. At the conclusion of his article, Turner encourages future ritual study on the liminal state, for he believes that it exposes “the basic building blocks of culture just when we pass out of and before we re-enter the structural realm” (Turner, p. 110).

   Specifically studying 2020’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square as a liminal state provides valuable insight into this call to study Turner makes. People placed immense weight on the transition between 2020 to 2021; for many, 2020 marked a year of loss, hardship, and struggle. Many believed that 2021 would be the complete antithesis of all they had experienced over the past nine months — as if another revolution around the sun would solve a global pandemic, racial injustices, and political tension. By investing so much magical belief in a changing number, people gained a sense of control over their life and what was going on in the world. People thought December 31, 2020 was one of the final moments of the liminal phase between being in the pandemic and not, and in celebrating in Times Square that day, they showed that ritual is one of the very “building blocks of culture” that Turner discussed. Humans thrive on being together, finding joy, and imparting symbolism and value.

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People welcome 2021 with champagne, glasses, and selfies at 50th and Broadway, just outside Times Square, as the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2021.

   Catherine Bell and Jens Kreinath also talk about Turner’s idea of communitas in their work, Ritual. The liminal stage is marked by communitas, which temporarily upends social order. They say that “chaotic inversions of the social order found in the symbols and activities of the liminal phase of communitas maintain the structure that they invert in the same way that a door maintains the boundaries of one room by creating passage to another one” (Bell & Kreinath, p. 388). Fittingly, Bell and Kreinath relate this concept to Mircea Eliade’s analyses of new year celebrations around the world and how they attempt to restore time by holding ceremonies that reenact how their culture believes the universe began. By embracing a cyclic vision of time that repeats every 365 days, people try to gain control over nature and be “reborn” in a sense — exactly the intention of New Year’s Eve 2020.

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NYPD try to break up crowds and tell people to social distance via a speaker (right) just outside Times Square on December 31, 2020.

The people who celebrated in Times Square on December 31, 2020 additionally subverted the social order by gathering there in the first place; the official New Year’s Eve party had been canceled because of the pandemic. Barricades were placed around the heart of Times Square, and the NYPD shooed people back with a loud speaker that played a prerecorded message of maintaining social distancing and not gathering. But that didn’t stop people from clustering tightly on the next nearest street corner that still had a view of the ball. Eventually, around 11:30 p.m., the NYPD gave up and let people gather. The people had won over the authorities.

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People wait for the ball to drop as they watch from behind a barricade at 51st and Broadway, a couple of blocks away from Times Square, on December 31, 2020.

   But, all of these social order shifts are short-lived; while the celebration allows people to reclaim sovereignty over nature for one night (or maybe even a week, depending on how adamant they are), the energy quickly dies down and they fall back into the typical everyday routine they followed the previous year. The NYPD regains control over crowds, and most people likely return to staying an arm’s length away from strangers.


   New Year’s Eve 2020 is an excellent example to start a look into 2021 with, as it demonstrates from the very first second of the year how willing people are to risk their safety and go against authority in order to paint a picture of normalcy and happiness.

Capitol Insurrection

   Just as easily as rituals about rebirth can happen, so, too, can rituals of rebellion. The United States witnessed this in the heart of the nation just six days into the new year as Donald Trump’s supporters converged in Washington, D.C. for a rally in protest of Congress certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. What started off as a protest devolved into an outright attack on the Capitol following a suggestive speech by Trump, leaving five dead that day. The country was in a state of liminality between one controversial president and the next. To try and understand why the insurrection happened, ritual theory comes in hand.

   Bell & Kreinath cite the work of Émile Durkheim in Ritual to discuss the idea of collective effervescence: “an emotional state through which they [the attendees] came to identify themselves with their gods” (p. 385). These gods aren’t necessarily religious deities, but a “figurative expression of the society itself.” In essence, collective effervescence is a feeling a large group of people experience as one, at the same time, over the same thing. Typically — perhaps because of the nature of the phrase itself — this state is thought of as leading to positive outcomes; for instance, the electric happiness felt by all during and proceeding a concert. But, as in the case of the Capitol insurrection, collective effervescence can have severe consequences.

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Supporters wave American and Trump 2020 flags atop scaffolding they had climbed in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021.

   Trump was the god in this scenario, as he was the reason why people had come to the capital from across the country. Throughout his four years in office and time spent campaigning beforehand, he grew an immensely devoted fanbase. He achieved god-like status far before the insurrection. So, when his supporters gathered tightly in one space in time, all of their already-shared emotions — dedication, passion, anger — fueled each other. Of course, the surge in emotion was ignited even further by Trump’s speech (as well as those who spoke before him, like Rudy Giuliani), during which he notably told the crowd to “walk to the Capitol” and said “we fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.” While it’s been debated among political sides if this speech actually was a call to a physical attack, what can’t be denied is the power it had in creating a tremendous feeling of collective effervescence. Being cheered on by their god was the flame to the gasoline.

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People walk over the Capitol lawn on January 6, 2021.

   Buford explores collective effervescence and how it can lead to violence in his book Among the Thugs, which explores soccer fan culture in the U.K. Buford particularly describes a moment on pages 122 and 123 when Manchester United supporters were planning to attack West Ham supporters at a train station. First, the crowd started walking “at the pace of a steady walk,” and Buford “could see the confidence felt then by everyone.” This is just like collective effervescence. Then, the crowd began to pick up their pace. Someone started to quietly chant “Kill, kill, kill” and others caught on. From that point, the energy boiled over: people began running and shouting “KILL, KILL, KILL.” This sharp escalation in tone and action is a product of negative collective effervescence, which can also be tied to mob mentality.

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A rioter climbs Capitol scaffolding that had been set up for Joe Biden's inauguration on January 6, 2021.

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Rioters set off smoke bombs as they overtook the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

   This scene was eerily similar to what happened during the Capitol insurrection; it started off relatively fine — just a lot of people gathered together — but quickly took a turn as the supporters’ confidence and anger grew at the same rate and time. The wire fence around the Capitol wasn’t enough at all to prevent them from running onto the grounds, and even the scaffolding that had been set up for the upcoming inauguration was used as a tool to get into the building itself. Material objects could not stop the intense emotion felt. The supporters said things they probably wouldn’t normally say, too; take, for example, their attitudes toward the media. One person asked if I was part of the media and I said no, but they didn’t believe me, said I better leave if I know what was good for me, and then shouted at everyone in the surrounding area to smash my camera and get me. Like the “Kill, kill, kill” chant, I don’t think this would’ve happened if they hadn’t been washed over in collective effervescence and in the heat of the moment.

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Supporters pack the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument in preparation for President Trump's speech on January 6, 2021.

   Further parallels between the insurrection and sporting rituals can be drawn in the stock they place on symbolic physical materials. Trump supporters have essentially claimed the American flag and red, white, and blue, and also have their unmistakable, red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. It wasn’t uncommon to see people decked head to toe in Trump gear at the insurrection, and one couldn’t look anywhere without seeing at least four American flags proudly waving in the wind. This creates a visible boundary between “us” and “them,” for you’re either on the side of freedom or not. Lastly, football fan culture and Trump’s supporters who actively took part in the insurrection also weren’t afraid of physical pain; they’re all willing to sacrifice themselves, to some extent, for their god.

Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate

   Over the past couple of decades, mass tragedies have unfortunately become something to be expected across the world. Mass shootings have wreaked havoc throughout much of the United States and, while the country saw a lull during the first year of the pandemic, 2021 unfortunately saw the return of the tragedy. In mid-March, a man traveled to three spas in the Atlanta area and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. The event came in light of increased hate crimes against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, many of which were public and violent. Members of the AAPI community gathered all over the country to remember the victims’ lives, and people in New York City gathered for three consecutive days to mourn and also protest Asian hate. On March 19, the first day, the Asian American Federation hosted the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate in Union Square, drawing hundreds. The collective mourning of the spa shootings was unique in comparison to typical death rituals, in that it served as a liminal phase between remembering the victims’ lives, but also marked the start of fearing for one’s own.

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Members of the crowd pray for the victims lost in the Atlanta spa shootings during the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate in Union Square on March 19, 2021.

   The people who converged in Union Square did not personally know the six women who lost their lives earlier that week. They were even separated by 900 miles from the city in which the crime happened. And yet, the urge to organize and remember was strong — I felt it, too, as there was a terrible feeling in my heart that I knew would only disappear if I attended one of the gatherings. What was felt amongst the AAPI community that week in March was similar to celebrity death; nobody knew who the victims were beforehand, and yet, they were “intimate strangers,” as Jacque Lynn Foltyn put it in Bodies of Evidence: Criminalising the Celebrity Corpse. This is a fascinating situation, for, unlike celebrities, the women who lost their lives didn’t have massive fanbases they kept updated through social media, or even do work that the general public could relate to, like creating music or acting. The mourners only became a part of the women’s lives once they had passed on, which is a stark contrast from fans who develop parasocial relationships with celebrities over the years.

   To explain why people still cared just as deeply about ritually remembering the lives of the women who were lost, then, it is likely because they’re connected in a way that is intimate and personal: having a shared identity. When a member or members of a community are targeted seemingly just for what they look like or identity with, the other members feel that pain and loss, too; it could’ve been any of them. Thus, the ritual of mourning mass shootings of a particular group may be less for the people who were actually killed and more for the mourners themselves. By holding a vigil that has all the familiar ritual elements of a typical death ritual, such as prayers, speeches, and candles, group solidarity and comfort can be produced.

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Mourners light candles around a sign remembering Yong Yue, one of the victims of the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, during the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate in Union Square on March 19, 2021.

   This follows Christine McWhorter’s analysis that “local news stories and interviews provided a symbolic ritual space for viewers to grieve and allowed viewers to connect as a community” following the May 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach. Although the situation is slightly different because the viewers she mentions may have known the victims, the premise is the same: people turn to public mourning in order to create bonds between those remaining in a community after a tragedy and feel like they weren’t alone.

   At the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate, people mourned in their own ways, which I believe furthers the point that it was more so a ritual for the mourners than the six women. Some people took the opportunity to speak out against Asian hate in general, while others carried signs with the names of those who had been lost. Some parents brought their children, while other people came alone. Notably, there was no de facto all-black dress code that is typically characteristic of death rituals.

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A daughter standing in front of her mother holds a sign during the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate in Union Square on March 19, 2021.

   The area of death rituals following mass tragedies is largely unstudied. I believe the area presents a lot of opportunity because of its complexities of not being a personal death, but not being a celebrity death, either.

Penn's Class of 2021 Commencement

   One of the most anticipated rituals at Penn this year was commencement. When the Class of 2021 faced an abrupt end to their in-person college experience right before spring break 2020 and watched as the Class of 2020’s commencement ceremony was indefinitely postponed, the anxiousness among the class to have one shred of normalcy to conclude college was palpable. Fortunately, the class was able to gather in Franklin Field this year to officially be declared graduates — but with a few differences from past commencement ceremonies. While all graduations represent the liminal state between being a student and going out into the world as an adult, I argue that this year’s graduation was more liminal (though, not as liminal as the Class of 2020’s) because the students were entering a workforce that had been rattled by the pandemic.

   To start with the ritual characteristics present at any graduation, Michael Siegel outlined it concisely in “The Use of Ritual and Ceremony in Strengthening Institutional Affiliation Among First-Year Students,” which is the main source I used for my interview paper this semester: “So where graduation is the rite of passage, the discrete events that give it meaning – the robing of the participants, the procession to the stage, the conferral of degrees, and the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” for example – are the ceremonial aspects” (p. 12). “The ceremonial aspects” is synonymous with ritual aspects. Peter Mark Magolda expands upon this in “Saying Good-Bye: An Anthropological Examination of a Commencement Ritual,” in which he dives into how commencement ceremonies have a ritual script, are littered with symbolism, reinforce social hierarchies, employ the use of costumes, and uses props. All of this is done, at the end of the day, to make it known to the participants and attendees that what they are doing is special, should be remembered, and should make them feel more bound to the university.

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(From left to right) Chase Griffiths, Thanimas Scott, and Tony Barr — boyfriend and parents of College graduate Morgan Smalls, respectively — watch the commencement ceremony from Shoemaker Green on May 17, 2021.

   Penn’s convocation this year possessed all of those aspects, but what is more interesting is what ritual elements were gained and lost in light of the pandemic. Most noticeably, parents, family, and friends were not allowed to attend the ceremony in Franklin Field. While this didn’t stop many families from making the trip to Philly anyway to sit outside and watch the live steam, their absence within the field detracted from the ritual value. Once the students were officially declared graduates, they weren’t able to celebrate their achievement with family members in the sacred space that is the storied Franklin Field; instead, they had to file out in groups and find their family somewhere on campus — or, in the case of some students, have no family to even meet.


   Related to a lack of an audience in Franklin Field, the ritual symbolism of seating placement was also lost this year. Magolda notes how “the physical layout illuminates the many power relationships of ceremony participants” (p. 789), with administrators and faculty sitting on-stage and graduates sitting below them. There is a distinct hierarchy created with this setup, but at this year’s graduation, social distancing meant some students sat on the field while many more sat in the stands. Suddenly, some students were sitting higher than the administrators and faculty, which could indicate a higher status — but, at the same time, they did not get to experience the classic ritual experience of sitting on Franklin Field (in seats that had back support as opposed to bleachers, no less).

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Pam Snyder, mother of Nursing graduate Lauren Snyder, cheers from College Green as the Class of 2021 is officially declared seniors during a special Hey Day ceremony on May 17, 2021.

   The second most notable aspect of this year’s commencement ceremony was the inclusion of another Penn ritual: Hey Day. As the Class of 2021 was not able to hold their Hey Day celebration at the end of their junior year, they were never officially declared seniors. And so, for the sake of following tradition, Penn gave each student a large bag that held Hey Day skimmer hats and canes. This further supports how ritual is one of the “building blocks of culture” that Turner said would reveal itself during liminal periods. Although the students didn’t get the true experience of marching down Locust Walk and assembling in front of College Hall amid Penn’s beautiful spring campus, they were afforded an entirely unique Hey Day that likely no other class at Penn will have.

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College graduate Eva Spier wears a specially-designed mask that celebrates the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2021 as she exits Franklin Field after the ceremony on May 17, 2021.

   Finally, each member of the Class of 2021 received a specially-made mask that had a design celebrating their class and graduation. Magolda talked about the importance of props during commencement rituals, using a program booklet as his prime example: “This physical artifact, printed on high-quality paper and carefully bound, symbolically conveys that the document is a keepsake, not a handout that attendees will discard at the conclusion of the ceremony” (p. 789). If a program booklet is a keepsake worth remembering, the mask is a prized jewel. Not only is it special because of its design, but it cements the Class of 2021 as “the ones who graduated during a global pandemic.” The mask is likely not one that Penn expected students to wear regularly after graduation (unlike the standard Penn design masks that were given to everyone who moved in on-campus); instead, it’s to be a special memento.

20th Anniversary of 9/11

   The first scholarly article on ritual we read, Bell and Kreinath’s Ritual, opened with how people used rituals to cope with the aftermath of 9/11. Impromptu prayers were said for people who had just been announced to have passed, religious spaces held countless funeral services, honor parades were held near Ground Zero for firefighters, and “families left tokens of personal significance, visitors posted messages of solidarity, and schoolchildren contributed class projects of indiscriminate tribute” (p. 382). 20 years later, the raw pain of the events of 9/11 has subsided, but many of the rituals have remained the same. For a tragedy at such a massive scale as 9/11, many are in a constant liminal state of being unable to move on from the loss completely. The mass ritual mourning is different from the Vigil for Victims of Asian Hate, in that the tragedy did not target a specific community, but targeted Americans as a whole.

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A woman makes the sign of the cross after lighting a candle at the 9/11 Memorial in Jersey City, N.J. on September 11, 2021.

   Broadly, ceremonies were held to remember the 20th anniversary of 9/11 across the country. Here at Penn, a ceremony was held at the LOVE Statue, a common gathering place for mourning rituals on campus, on September 10. The event was not widely publicized, but any passersby were welcome to take a white flower, listen to speeches, and partake in a moment of silence for those who had lost their lives, including 16 Penn alumni. The University welcomed back Reverend William C. Gibson to speak, who served as University Chaplain in 2001. Despite how the ceremony only lasted about 20 minutes, the effort to hand out symbolic flowers and have campus leaders past and present share their reflections speaks to the importance of rituals of any shape and size in creating unity among the community and reiterating that remembrance is a shared value.


People raise white flowers to the sky following a moment of silence during Penn's 20th anniversary of 9/11 commemoration on September 10, 2021.

   The next day, on the anniversary itself, New York City hosted a number of rituals. Although they were grander than Penn’s ceremony, they were just as somber. At the beginning of the day, a commemoration was held at Ground Zero that was open only to family members of people who had passed and a number of important political figures, including President Biden and Vice President Harris. At the conclusion of the ceremony, family members were given time to mourn their loved ones at the 9/11 Memorial in private. While this happened, hundreds gathered in lower Manhattan to be in the presence of One World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit. Some people watched the live stream of the ceremony while standing there.

   The ceremony and the public’s response to not being able to attend the ceremony demonstrate how people deem places as sacred. The 9/11 Memorial is a sacred place at all times, for we always place meaning in where people have lost their lives, no matter the scale. One World Trade, however, is a more unique case. Although it’s become an iconic part of the Manhattan skyline because of its height and because everyone knows what formerly stood in its place, people imbue it with more ritual significance than ever each September 11. To stand in the sunlight it magnificently reflects at the times of the tower strikes is to stand in the shadow of history.

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A family member of a victim of 9/11 looks up at One World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2021.

   Once family members had their time at the memorial, the general public was permitted to enter. Individual flowers and old newspaper articles had been placed into the engraved names and photos and bouquets had been placed atop the stone, just like what had happened during the immediate aftermath of the attack. But some of the meaning was diminished as crowds of tourists took endless photos of the memorial on their phone, some even taking selfies or group photos in front of it. This illustrates the risk of mourning rituals that are so massive in scale; people who don’t have deep ties to it can appreciate it enough to attend, but not enough to fully respect. This commodification may specifically happen in the case of 9/11’s anniversary because the event is so tied up in the collapse of two skyscrapers. The loss of human life was so great that it can be easy to become numb by the numbers, like what we’re still experiencing now with COVID, but the disappearance of two huge buildings is unavoidable.

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A plane flies over the Tribute in Light on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in New York City, N.Y. on September 11, 2021.

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Printouts of a newspaper article remembering a victim of 9/11 are placed in their engraved name at the South Pool on September 11, 2021.

   So, unsurprisingly, a constant theme of the mourning rituals during the 20th anniversary was the symbolism of the twin towers. It was nearly everywhere one looked: people wore commemorative t-shirts that had the towers on it, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum logo distinguishes the “11” in blue, and some of the flowers and photos people left on the memorial pools were arranged in the shape of the towers. Of course, the most obvious instance of symbolism of the twin towers is the Tribute in Light. It’s interesting how much the ritual symbols around 9/11 revolve around the buildings and not the people lost; it’s as if the buildings are missed more. Perhaps there is meaning behind how the New York skyline forever changed since that day, and thus New York has forever been shaped, but this meaning is rather implicit and not one I think many people would think of immediately. Perhaps it is simply easier to place weight on lost buildings than lost lives.

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